It used to be that the easiest way to break the law was to go into a corner shop and to steal something, but now you can break the law just by clicking a button from the comfort of your own home. Is this progress?
Before if you wanted to libel someone you usually had to be a publisher of a magazine, newspaper, or some other print entity, but now with the rise of the internet, and especially of social media, the waters have become muddied; in a world where anyone can publish content at the touch of a button libel has become just as easy – and in some people’s eyes, akin to – telling your friends the latest rumour you heard. Twitter is the prime contender in the title for “Inadvertent Libel Enabler”. (No wonder that Ian Hislop has tweeted only once, and that was to confirm that others tweeting as “Ian Hislop” were, in-fact, not him.)
In a world where libel has become so easy that a child can do it (barring the obvious age of criminal responsibility laws), should the law be changed to protect those unwitting libelers, or is their fate set upon them due to their ignorance and fast fingers?
Before the internet the media, especially the print media, was controlled from a top-down model, and what was said was (and still is, if the super-injuction saga is anything to judge by) a more or less controlled environment. The internet, on the other hand, is an un-moderated jungle of democracy, where is it possible to say (or even, do) absolutely anything.
The internet has provided us with an extremely powerful tool, but a tool nonetheless which in the wrong hands is very dangerous. The internet provides a way for millions (nay, billions) to express themselves and their thoughts and opinions in a way that couldn’t even have been imagined before. But at the same time as providing us all with this magnificent opportunity, the internet makes our responsibilities for what we say all the more immediate.
People need to learn that a tweet does not amount to a private conversation; it has the same legal implications of publishing something. If you publish something damaging to a person’s character that proves to be false then you can be prosecuted, whether this is in a newspaper, on a blog, or on twitter. Imagine yourself standing in a room with a hundred million people, and when you talk all hundred million can hear you just as clearly as your friends. This is the magnitude of twitter; it isn’t a toy – it isn’t the private sphere.
While ignorance – and the lack of realisation that one’s actions have particular consequences – is no justifiable defence in law, it does open up some interesting questions about what can be done to make the new social sphere safer for both victims and unwitting criminals alike.
How can we make social networks a safer and truer place for everyone without putting restrictions on what people can say? Should we end every tweet with the hashtag #citationneeded?